Skip to main content

John Byrne - Nova Scotia

John Byrne’s past is all around him. Standing outside the hall on the verge of Edinburgh’s Grassmarket where his new play, Nova Scotia, is being rehearsed, the site of the old Traverse Theatre is a stone’s throw away. It was there Byrne’s career as a playwright began in the 1970s with The Slab Boys. This scabrously funny study of working class frustration and aspiration set in a Paisley carpet factory became a topping point for Scottish drama.

Along with the play’s two sequels, The Slab Boys was revived five years ago at The Traverse’s new home. Seeing the trilogy together over the course of a season allowed audiences to chart the fortunes of Phil and Spanky in full. The boys’ back-street ambitions to be an artist and a rock star had come true, although other, more grown-up concerns lingered alongside the middle-aged spread that accompanied them.

A quarter of a century on, Nova Scotia catches up with Byrne’s heroes in their dotage. Rather than settle down quietly, however, as one might expect from such a pair of wise-cracking smarty-pants, both have grown old disgracefully.

“It’s the only way to go,” says 67 year old Byrne, removing yellow-rimmed spectacles in a noisy café close to the rehearsal room. “It’s a case of be as you were, only worse. To the extent that they gate-crashed the play,” Byrne says, his blue eyes twinkling. “I was curious about what happened to them both, and the only way to find out was to write the play. But I never set out to. I was going to do another play in the same setting, but because I knew them so well, they kept on nagging me. I didn’t know how it was going to unfold, because I never plan things out. All I knew was that they got together somehow, and that Spanky was still involved in the world of rock, in the way that all these bands are getting together again, and that somebody was wanting to make a video of them. I see Nazareth are on tour again,” Byrne says of the 1970s rock legends currently doing the rounds, then squints as he listens to the hip hop music playing in the café.

“Is that two different songs playing?” he asks of the track, on which a fiddle melody plays on top of seemingly disparate beats.

There’s a similar sense of worlds colliding in Nova Scotia. Phil and Spanky may have gate-crashed the play, but they remain the indulgent face of rock n’ roll bohemia. Phil’s Turner Prize nominated conceptual artist partner Didi, on the other hand, comes off worse. Byrne comes from an era where craftsmanship and artistry were valued far more than the shock of the new. It’s a generational divide Byrne feel acutely. At one point in the play, Phil and Didi tear verbal chunks out of each other in a way that illustrates the ongoing aesthetic debate Byrne is wrestling with.

“They’re quite hard on each other,” he says, “because there’s a culture clash that’s going on there. It’s strange in this country that the avant-garde is the established order. Conceptual art seems to be more about celebrities and invitations to 10 Downing Street and all of that. When I started out, most successful artists were getting bungs off the galleries. It was corruption. Now there’s the whole PR thing as well, so you have a sanitised culture industry that’s manipulated for the lowest common denominator, and all you get is entertainment. But there’ll be a younger generation coming along soon who’ll think all that’s terribly old-fashioned and want to blow it away. I’ve never been the established order,” he says. “I’ve missed out.”

Where, then, does Byrne fit in? He’s instinctively anti-establishment, but he’s also opposed to arty-fartyness for the sake of it. The Slab Boys is regarded as a contemporary classic of popular theatre, though it isn’t the no-frills knockabout it’s often mistaken for. Byrne’s plays may be hilarious, but the stream of brilliant one-liners that ricochet through the dialogue are barbed with pathos. In Byrne’s world, laughs are never cheap, and setting his work so close to home is a deliberate strategy in order to tackle some very big ideas.

“The laughs,” Byrne points out, “have to be earned through a bit of darkness.”

Sure enough, on paper, the potential for laughter goes way beyond the dialogue. As with most people who know each other inside out, it’s what’s left unsaid beyond the banter that’s important. So it is with Phil and Spanky.

“I never saw any plays that represented me,” Byrne says, “so I had to invent them, and I had to tell these stories in a way that I recognised. It’s the content of something that transcends things, not the means. It’s about what we’re doing here, so why waste time? I don’t want to be reinventing the novel that I’m reading.”

Next up for Byrne is a musical written with composer Jim Rafferty, called Underwood Lane. Like Byrne, Rafferty also worked in the slab rooms, and their connections go way back. Rafferty is the elder brother of Gerry Rafferty, who scored a worldwide hit with Baker Street. In the 1970s Byrne provided artwork for Rafferty’s album covers, while Rafferty’s song, Patrick, is about Byrne. Any similarities between the real life artist and rock star and Spanky and Phil, however, is purely coincidental. Probably.

Set in two streets in Paisley, Underwood Lane, says Byrne, is a love story. Significantly, rather than a contemporary setting, it takes place in a past all too familiar to its author.

“If it was set now you’d need a young person to write it to get it right,” says Byrne, “and it would have to be about things that no longer makes any inroads into my psyche. I have to write about a world that’s familiar to me,” he says. “It’s your back catalogue that makes you who you are.”

Nova Scotia, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 29 April-24 May; previews 25-27 April
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, April 22nd 2008

ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Maids

Dundee Rep

Two sisters sit in glass cases either side of the stage at the start of Eve Jamieson's production of Jean Genet's nasty little study of warped aspiration and abuse of power. Bathed in red light, the women look like artefacts in some cheap thrill waxworks horror-show, or else exhibits in a human zoo. Either way, they are both trapped, immortalised in a freak-show possibly of their own making.

Once the sisters come to life and drape themselves in the sumptuous bedroom of their absent mistress, they raid her bulging wardrobe to try on otherwise untouchable glad-rags and jewellery. As they do, the grotesque parody of the high-life they aspire to turns uglier by the second. When the Mistress returns, as played with daring abandon by Emily Winter as a glamour-chasing narcissist who gets her kicks from drooling over the criminal classes, you can't really blame the sisters for their fantasy of killing her.

Slabs of sound slice the air to punctuate each scene of Mart…

Phoebe Waller-Bridge - Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a busy woman. The thirty-two year old actress who burst onto our TV screens as writer and star of Fleabag, the tragi-comic sort of sit-com about a supposedly independent woman on the verge is currently overseeing Killing Eve, her new TV drama which she's written for BBC America. As an actress, Waller-Bridge is also filming a big screen project which we can't talk about, but which has already been outed as being part of the ongoing Star Wars franchise.

These are both pretty good reasons why Waller-Bridge won't be appearing in the brief Edinburgh Festival Fringe revival of the original stage play of Fleabag, when it opens next week at the Underbelly, where it was first unleashed to the world in 2013. In her place, Maddie Rice will take on the role of the potty-mouthed anti-heroine after touring Vickie Jones' production for Waller-Bridge and Jones' DryWrite company in association with Soho Theatre. This doesn't mean Waller-Bridge has turned…

The Divide

King's Theatre
Four stars

Everything is black and white in Alan Ayckbourn's new play, a six hour two part epic set in a dystopian future where men and women are segregated from each other following the aftermath of an unspecified plague. Into this landscape, the secret diaries of brother and sister Elihu and Soween are brought to life by Jake Davies and Erin Doherty with a wide-eyed lightness of touch as their hormones get the better of them when they both hit puberty.
Annabel Bolton's production for the Old Vic, EIF and Karl Sydow begins with a TED Talk type lecture that reveals the back story to how things turned out this way. It ends with a sentimental love story designed to tug the heart-strings. Inbetween, there is teenage rebellion aplenty against the regime's institutionalised repression. Liberation comes through art and sex, which, in such extreme circumstances become even greater life forces.

With both plays told through the siblings' diaries alongside ass…